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Sinéad O’Connor Gave Us Permission To Be a Handful

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Sinead O'Connor performs at Vredenburg in Utrecht, Netherlands on March 16, 1988

The last time I saw Sinéad O’Connor perform, maybe 10 years ago, someone in the crowd asked her to play “Troy,” her furious ballad to a lover who is also someone else’s lover. And she laughed and said that she had done a lot of therapy to not have to sing “Troy” anymore. At least I think it was “Troy.” It might have been “The Last Days of Our Acquaintance,” about a different breakup. Or “My Special Child,” about an abortion. There were so many Sinead O’Connor songs in which she bared her soul, with all its glorious imperfections and inconvenient longings and difficult choices, it could have been almost anything from her songbook. “I’m not a pop star,” she wrote in her memoir, Rememberings in 2021. “I’m just a troubled soul who needs to scream into mikes now and then.”

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O’Connor, whose family announced on July 26 that she had died at the age of 56, was for many of the women of my generation so much more than that, including both a balm and a battery. She understood and shared our particular quandaries, but she was not content, as many of us were, to not make a fuss. Over her 10 studio albums, from the The Lion and the Cobra in 1987, through the monster hit I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got in 1990, to Universal Mother in 1994 and all the way to her last album I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss in 2014, she chronicled and illuminated the state of her cohort of women as they navigated the shoals of each stage of life. And she lived as she sang, without compromise, electrified by the injustice and sadness she saw around her and deploying the excess acid in that battery to empower others.

Most people found O’Connor around the time of her 1990 cover “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a song written by Prince, but immortalized by O’Connor’s black and white music video—all bald head, oversized overcoat and wide-eyed ferocity. It became the anthem of every woman who was left by a guy because she was too much of a handful. It was the first inkling many of us had that being a handful might be the only way forward, and, for me particularly, that the guy who introduced me to her music might be O.K. with handfuls.

Being an O’Connor fan was not always easy, but it was always bracing. Sometimes it felt like having a sister with no filter, who asked the right questions but the wrong way. She was not polite or easy, but she was mischievous and funny. There was always something to wonder about or marvel at: the four marriages, the Arsenio Hall lawsuit, the open letters to Miley Cyrus, the late-in-life adoption of a hijab after saying she was a Christian, the hysterectomy-induced depression that found her, in 2017, in a New Jersey Travelodge, talking about suicide and loneliness on Facebook.

And, of course, the eyebrow-raising act that started it all: her famous 1992 shredding of a photo of one of the world’s most revered figures on Saturday Night Live, of all places, is all that many people will remember of her life. I was watching the show when it happened and shrugged. It was just a photo, I thought. (I was in the minority.) Often, her aim was accurate, if not exactly at the bullseye. But more timid souls, such as mine, often wished we could take her aside and whisper, “not the venue!

At the same time, her courage was a relief. She dared to do and say things, so other people did not have to. “They laugh ’cause they know they’re untouchable,” she sang. “Not because what I said was wrong.” Besides, the stories were all just wallpaper to the main act: her weapons-grade compassion, the humor, the miraculous voice and the way her songs pinned our yearnings to music. Universal Mother, arguably her most LP-as-therapy record, is corrosively honest about motherhood and daughterhood and mid-’90s family formation. It is also so achingly beautiful that my spouse (the same guy who introduced me to her music) and I played one of the songs at the baptism of our first child. Her music could accommodate the inherent contradictions of a sad song at a happy moment.

Presenting a private pain for public consumption for the sake of a discussion, or to highlight a societal problem, has become a common theme of Internet-age celebrity, a means to break through the incessant noise. But as an early adopter of the practice, O’Connor paid a high price. She was canceled before it became a thing. “These are dangerous days,” she sang. “To say what you feel is to dig your own grave/ Remember what I told you/ If you were of the world they would love you.”

Many of this world did love her and wished her the long, fulfilling, song-and-adoration-filled twilight that has been denied her. A planned series of concerts in North America in 2020 was scuppered by the pandemic. Her 17-year-old son Jake died by suicide in January 2022. In her last interviews, however, O’Connor seemed to have lost none of her impish charm but found a new equilibrium. At some point, O’Connor’s life and mine diverged. I grew out my buzz cut, got an office job and stopped wearing men’s clothes. But I never stopped listening to those songs, in awe of the warrior poet. I hope that at the end she understood what her admirers knew and deeply esteemed about her: that she lived as the handful she promised she would be in 1990. “Whatever it may bring, I will live by my own policies,” she sang. “I will sleep with a clear conscience. I will sleep in peace.”

If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental-health crisis or contemplating suicide, call or text 988. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.

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